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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor, The Nation
Jim Webb can make the Four Seasons feel like a diner in Owensboro, Kentucky. It's that kind of blue-collar street cred that may be just what it takes to propel the first-term senator from Virginia onto the Democratic ticket as vice president.
On Monday night, at a party for his latest book, "A Time to Fight: Reclaiming a Fair and Just America," the first term Senator from Virginia filled the dining citadel of elitism with a spirited mix of active duty and retired Marines and New York's media glitterati. After he said a few words, Webb remained at the made-for-the-occasion podium–as if he were campaigning–and took questions.
Ronald Reagan's former Secretary of the Navy has refocused the warrior ambition that made him the most highly decorated Vietnam-era Marine from his Naval Academy into a passionate, progressive and patriotic populism. When asked, by The New Yorker's Rick Hertzberg, what he thought of those who opposed the Vietnam war, Webb said "I never had a problem with those who properly opposed the war. I had a problem with the way vets were treated when they got home."
He explained that as the young vet and author of "Fields of Fire," the classic novel of the Vietnam War, "I inherited the obligation to articulate the conclusions of those who served." And in that, he suggested, lay the seeds of anger and bitterness toward opponents of a war he had served in...passions which have ebbed and subdued as he has witnessed the disaster of Iraq.
Monday night, as on other nights, most notably the January night in 2007 when Webb delivered the most devastating Democratic State of the Union reply in modern memory, the Senator used his bully pulpit to rip into a Republican Administration that has shafted the men and women it sent into an unnecessary war by denying them the benefits they deserve and for allowing this country, as he told me, to "calcify along class lines."
When I asked what he would do to make the people who lived up and down the street we were on, Park Avenue, contribute to reclaiming a fair and just America, Webb spoke forcefully of ending a system "in which the average corporate CEO now makes nearly 400 times more than what an average worker does." "When I graduated from college," he told me, "the average CEO made 20 times what the average worker did." As Webb fielded questions, with his young Vietnamese wife close by, he even repeated questions when they weren't clear ("a technique of military instruction," he joked), he denounced the inequities of system which takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day.
When asked if he'd consider being a vice presidential candidate on an Obama ticket, Webb's non-reply - "I like being a Senator" - suggested to me that he's ready to rumble. And his media blitz these last few days - Meet the Press, Late Show With Letterman, Olbermann and Dobbs tonight - second that emotion.
Through all this, the senator's wife was a striking, yet serene, presence. "She keeps those turbulent waters calm," Webb said of her influence on him. He also spoke movingly of her life as part of the promise of America - a woman whose maternal grandparents were killed by the Vietnamese Communists, comes to the US and gets a degree at the University of Michigan and then a law degree at Cornell. I couldn't help but think what a striking pair Webb and his wife would make if they were to join the Democratic ticket.
"We should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today," Webb told a nation last year, as he rebutted and rebuked President Bush. It is that spirit that offers a path forward for progressives, not only to win elections, but to govern.
Editor's note: For more from Katrina Vanden Heuval, see TheNation.com
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